TORONTO – Two-on-two? Not gonna happen. But three-on-three? Now that's something we could see in NHL overtime someday.
Of all the ideas being tested this week at the league's Research, Development and Orientation Camp, the most realistic ones with the biggest potential to impact the game involve overtime. The league is looking at two-on-two and three-on-three concepts, as well as four-on-four with teams switching ends to create long line changes.
Most everyone agrees the shootout has become too common. The debate is over what to do about it.
''I'd like to look at anything that reduces the number of games that are decided by a shootout,'' Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. ''I mean, basically we're deciding an astonishing percentage of games with a shootout. We never envisioned that when we approved that rule.''
When the NHL introduced the shootout in 2005-06, the thought was that teams would go all-out in the five-minute, four-on-four overtime period, trying to earn two points in the standings.
But look at what has happened over the past three seasons: In 2007-08, 156 games were decided by shootouts. In '08-09, the number was 159. Last season, it was a record 184 – almost 15 percent of the 1,230 games played.
Teams have started playing conservatively four-on-four, when the ice is supposed to be open for skill, speed and scoring. They play checking players. They even double-shift checking players. They try to secure one point, then steal the other in the shootout, when scouting reports and tendencies come into play. While the Zamboni is clearing a path to the net, shooters and goaltenders go to the bench to study video of each other.
''I don't like where four-on-four’s going to, because it's going nowhere,'' said former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock, who is behind one of the benches during the RDO Camp. ''You're playing to get to the shootout, where you've got more strategy and more control. I don't like where it's going to go in the next few years. To me, it's going to go the wrong place.''
It's safe to say two-on-two isn't the right place. The NHL tried it for three minutes during the morning session Wednesday, with players flying all over the ice and pucks flying into the net. One player was so gassed he couldn't finish a breakaway.
''Going down to two-on-two, it seems a bit extreme,'' Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said with a laugh. ''I don't know. I'd have to see it again.''
Hitchcock and multiple executives used the exact same word to describe it: ''gimmicky.''
''It was good that they did it,'' Detroit Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano said. ''I wanted to see two-on-two. I wanted to see it because I thought, ‘What is this going to look like?' And then I thought, ‘Oh, it doesn't really look like hockey.' ''
Never has two-on-two been a part of the game. Penalty shots and three-on-three situations are rare, but at least we've been there and done that. Compared to the two-on-two, the three-on-three-experiment looked good. Prospects were still flying all over the ice and pucks were still flying into the net, but it wasn't so haphazard.
The four-on-four with the long line change looked good, too, generating five or six odd-man rushes in a five-minute period during the afternoon session Wednesday. It's a subtle difference that could be easily implemented and have a big impact.
Players get tired. Teams make bad line changes. That creates scoring chances. It's no coincidence that 37 per cent of goals scored over the past 10 seasons were in the second period, when teams have the long change, versus 30 per cent in the first and 33 per cent in the third.
''It really opens the game up,'' said former NHL coach Dave King, who is behind the other bench this week. ''When you have a long change, if you make any mistake with the puck, it's dire straits. So I think that's one that the NHL will look at, because it's got good potential to open up the overtime and score some goals.''
There are some who would turn back the clock. Calling himself a traditionalist, Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray said he agrees that there are too many shootouts, so he would have a 10-minute overtime – maybe five minutes of five-on-five, five of four-on-four – and a tie game if no one scores.
But there is a growing number of executives who would like to at least entertain something new. Devellano, who helped develop the four-on-four concept, would play five minutes of four-on-four with the long change, then five more of three-on-three, no shootout. Burke likes the four-on-four with the long change and would like to look more at three-on-three, perhaps trying it in the preseason or the AHL.
''I think in the NHL, if it ever went 4-on-4, 3-on-3 in overtime, I don't think you'd get too many shootouts,'' Hitchcock said. ''It would be in somebody's net for sure.
''The idea for me is, let's score a goal from the competition. I just see teams spending tons of time on the shootout, both for and against. I see video on the bench. I see TVs coming to the bench. Let's let the players decide it, more players more involved. I think it makes it for a better game.''